RACING

How the latest race car hand controls put Wickens and Johnson back in the winner’s circle

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It started as a simple concept, but its implementation was not straightforward. It was complicated, constantly evolving, and — credit where due — simply ingenious.

When it became clear that Michael Johnson and Robert Wickens would both be driving a Hyundai Elantra N TCR in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge for the 2022 season, Bryan Herta Autosport engineers with Curb-Agajanian had to design a manual control system. that would fit the car, the drivers and the specs.

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What they developed – and continue to refine – is winning races and turning heads.

“It’s the best system I’ve used to date,” said Johnson, who has raced with hand controls since 2007.

Johnson and Wickens are paralyzed from the waist down. Their co-drivers, Stephen Simpson and Mark Wilkins, share Elantras fitted with standard brake and accelerator pedals that convert to manual controls on the steering wheel when Johnson and Wickens are driving.

“The concept is simple – you use your hands instead of your feet – but that’s where the simplicity ends,” said BHA Technical Director David Brown, who designed the system with BHA Development Technician Jonathan Gormley. “He always has to be driven by someone who also uses his feet. You have the underlying brake, throttle and clutch systems all on the floor of the car, but then you have a duplicate set of controls for someone who can’t use their feet.

The solution is a ring on the steering wheel that drivers pull towards them to brake, as well as paddles to control the accelerator. When Simpson and Wilkins are in the car, the hand brake and throttle controls revert to foot controls.

Wickens explained how the system works in this video:

Wickens, who returned to racing this year after crashing during an IndyCar Series race at Pocono Raceway in 2018, won at Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park with the system and ranks third in points. driver in the Touring Car Series (TCR) class in the No. 33 BHA Elantra which he co-drives with Wilkins.

Johnson, who was injured in a motorcycle racing accident aged 12, has used similar systems since returning to racing in 2007 in a hand-operated kart developed by Alex Zanardi, who lost both legs in an IndyCar accident in 2001.

Johnson had used a similar system in a BHA Hyundai Veloster N TCR he drove in 2021, but the Elantra manual-control system is slightly different, primarily through throttle paddles and brake ring feel.

The superiority of the system is seen in the results. Johnson and Simpson are fifth in the TCR Drivers standings after finishing second at Lime Rock Park and Road America in the No. 54 Michael Johnson Racing with BHA Elantra.

“The way I get feedback from it is much better, especially with the upgraded brake ring and throttle paddles we have instead of the big ring I had on the front of the steering wheel in previous years. “, Johnson said. “I like this system much better. I don’t mean it’s easier, but it’s a much better user experience.

As they prepare for the Virginia Is for Racing Lovers Grand Prix on August 27 at Virginia International Raceway, Johnson and Wickens are working with Brown and Gormley to find the sweet spot on the brakes.

“At some tracks we don’t need a ton of brake pressure, but at other tracks we do,” Johnson said. “It’s something we always try to play with. There are so many adjustment possibilities that you can sometimes get lost. It comes down to the feedback I get when I’m on track. This part can always be improved, so that’s what we’re working on. It’s always something that will be a work in progress.

Brown agrees. The device is not complete. On the contrary, it is constantly updated and modified, an endless experience in racing with manual controls.

“We kind of found that as we went along,” Brown said. “We discussed issues and offered solutions, experimented a bit and asked if we liked it and what we could improve on.”

It is, in a word, revolutionary.

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